By: Dr. Rebekah Fenton, MD, FAAP
The more we learn about the effects of
stress on the body and mind, the more we see the value of helping kids learn coping skills early in life.
Parents and caregivers of teens often ask me how to support their kids in dealing with the pressures of a turbulent world. The good news is that families can have a tremendous impact on the way teens experience and deal with stress.
Here are suggestions for making self-care a family priority while supporting your teen's personal exploration of what works best for them.
1. Open a family conversation about stress & health
Teens care about privacy and independence, so there may be times they try to hide any signs that they're experiencing stress. But
newer studies (and our own observations) suggest many teens feel intense pressure to do well in school, sports and extracurricular activities, to fit in with others or look a certain way. Many face
racism or discrimination that can have severe effects on their mental and physical health. Studies suggests that social media use can magnify these pressures, contributing to risks for depression, anxiety,
substance use and other serious health issues. (See "Social Media & Your Child's Mental Health.")
The first step in helping your teen cope is to make mental health an open topic in your family. If kids know it's OK to say they're
not OK, they will feel safe sharing what's happening in their lives. Parents and caregivers who listen without judgment, ask open-ended questions and express empathy and support can build the trust and understanding teens need to reveal their concerns and ask for help.
You can also visit the
AAP YouTube channel for a series of videos for teens on mental health. The videos address topics including depression, anxiety, eating disorders,
self-harm and other topics. Share with someone you care about:
2. Make self-care a family affair
In a stressful world, building
resilience is a family health issue. You can support your teen by agreeing on healthy routines that all of you will follow. Here are some good ideas that center on practices that help all humans feel their best.
Healthy rest.Sleep loss weakens our ability to deal with everyday pressures, and many teens (and adults!) don't get nearly enough. Work with your teen to create bedtime routines that enhance relaxation and calm, leading to
at least 8 hours of restful sleep.
Tasty, nutritious meals you enjoy together. The random chatter that happens while you're cooking, setting the table and eating together can foster connection (and help you pick up signals that your teen needs extra support). Mealtime also gives you the chance to talk about the stress-busting superpower of healthy foods that deliver essential nutrients. For conversation starters, visit
Physical activity. Regular exercise is a proven way to release tension, elevate mood and improve sleep. Parents who enjoy a sport or activity can invite kids to join in, keeping the competition friendly and the focus on fun. Families that swim, run, play, ski, skate or walk together will benefit from an active lifestyle.
Healthy media use. Tech is here to stay, but there's growing evidence that we need to use it thoughtfully. This
online tool from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) can help you create a family media plan that reflects your intentions around digital devices and content, emphasizing issues such as safety, privacy, kindness, compassion and other shared goals.
3. Encourage your teen to build a self-care toolbox
Self-care can be virtually anything that calms and relaxes us. Support your teen's independence by encouraging them to seek out ways of unwinding that work well for them.
Here's a list of possibilities to get you both started. Many of these techniques help evoke the "relaxation response," our body's natural way of recovering from stress.
Drawing, painting, sculpture and other visual arts
Knitting, crocheting, beading and other craftwork
Cuddling and caring for pets
Hikes and nature walks
Music (whether listening or playing)
Volunteering, tutoring or any activity that helps others
These can be solo pursuits or something your teen enjoys with others. Notice, too, that most of these practices don't cost a lot. Your teen can get started with them via free or low-cost apps, online videos or community courses.
4. Reinforce healthy views that support teen and family well-being
Stress often comes from sources outside us, but our own beliefs and attitudes can feed our anxieties too. You can help your teen by offering healthy, empowering perspectives like these:
There is no perfect. Comparing our lives (or bodies or careers or relationships) to others can fuel depression, anxiety and poor self-esteem. Helping your teen build a healthy context for the glossy images and videos they see on social media (and in fact, just about everywhere) will support their health.
Grind culture isn't healthy or realistic. The popular narrative tells us we need to be "on" 24/7 to succeed, but in reality, our brains and bodies need rest to perform well. Let your teen know that long-term success comes from healthy practices like the ones they're developing now.
Therapy is for everyone. There's a growing recognition that talk
therapy can benefit anyone who wants to build resilience and deal with stress more effectively. Conversations with a therapist – whether in-person or online—can be a great addition to our personal self-care toolboxes.
Feeling prepared helps melt stress. Practicing ahead of time can help us deal with stressful tasks like giving a talk or interviewing for a job. Building healthy communication skills that help us advocate for ourselves without anxiety or guilt is another way of feeling ready for life's challenges.
We can talk back to negative self-talk. When an inner voice says, "My life is the worst," it can help to imagine things going a very different way with some hard work and a little help. This simple habit can make a real difference in turning around negative thoughts that can erode our well-being.
We're in this together. The world's
longest-running study of happiness shows that close relationships are the secret to a happy, healthy life. Encourage your teen to seek out friends and mentors who will expand the circle of strength that surrounds them. Let them know that asking for help when they're down is another essential way they can care for themselves and their long-term health.
About Dr. Fenton
Rebekah Fenton MD, MPH, FAAP is a general pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist who lives and practices in Chicago. She is an emerging leader in health-equity focused medicine through her passionate care for marginalized youth, speaking and writing-based advocacy, and innovative leadership.